Not all stories have good endings. Especially those in real life, but there are still a ton of twisted authors who love torturing their readers with a crummy ending in which everyone important dies off. What a sobfest, am I right? But not all characters end well either: just ask the Tragic Hero.
I’ve talked quite a bit about developing your hero and your villain, and for good reason: their conflict makes up the backbone of your story. Not only that, but the strength and intrigue of said conflict is equal to how compelling your hero and villain are individually times their dynamic together. I = Integrity; ((I)Hero + (I)Villain)(How well the hero and villain play off each other) = Conflict Strength
But enough with the pseudo-intellectual mathematical banter. I’ll dispense with what few pleasantries I have left: are you a fan of gritty realism and emotional conflict? Do you prefer heroes that are on the shady side, but still want to see absolute justice performed? You might want to consider writing a tragic hero.
Now what exactly is a tragic hero? Predictable question, but it needs to be answered anyway. Well, a tragic hero is a hero with a crippling flaw that they cannot (or simply won’t) get rid of, and they perish as a result. The tragic hero represents one who was doomed themselves by their inability to change, and represents that a true hero must strive for inward perfection was well as try to fix the world.
A great example of this is Macbeth from Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Now, Macbeth is a noble man and a valiant warrior at the beginning of the play, but by the end he’s a brutal dictator and a bloody murderer. He’s a beautiful example of character work, but an even better example of a tragic hero.
Early on in the story, Macbeth is told by a trio of witches that he’d be the next king after his cousin, Duncan. He’s shaken by this, and when he confides this in his wife, she eggs him on to kill the king and seize the throne. In many ways, Lady Macbeth is the true villain of this story, but Macbeth’s heroism factor kicks in and he refuses, telling his wife that he’d never be able to kill his cousin.
But now we arrive at Macbeth’s core flaw: his obsession. Once he gets an idea in his head, he will think about it to the point of madness. In the end, he’s a very driven man who can always get what he wants. The trouble is, the more he thinks about becoming king, the more he likes the idea. After days of agonizing and hallucinating, he’s finally plucked up the resolve to kill the king.
Everything goes as planned: Duncan is stabbed in his sleep and Macbeth is crowned the new king. But Macbeth’s troubles are far from over. His obsession with the kingship doesn’t go away; rather, it heightens. He secretly has anyone who could possibly challenge his kingship assassinated, including his former best friend Banquo.
However, Macbeth’s foul deeds do not go unpunished: his poor handling of the kingdom eventually incites a rebellion among the people, which causes Macbeth to be killed in one final battle defending his castle…and his stolen kingship. The play ends with a speech from Macbeth that laments the vanity of life, shortly before he’s killed.
Macbeth is a great play for any number of reasons, but one of them is that Macbeth himself is a textbook example of a tragic hero: he’s the dashing, handsome warrior rogue that everyone envies–but he has one flaw, a secret stain that not even he knows. And in the end, that flaw is his undoing.
The point of a traditional hero (and there’s nothing wrong with them) is that they’re supposed to overcome their flaws and challenges in order to become the savior that the story needs them to be. The tragic hero takes the opposite approach, showing readers what it would be like if the hero didn’t overcome his or her flaws: they’d be destroyed.
Usually a tragic hero is written into a tragedy as the main character, but the other main use that I know of his to juxtapose a traditional hero and a tragic hero in the same story, letting the fate of the tragic hero teach the traditional hero that flaws must be overcome, or those flaws will overcome you.
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!